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Looking Ahead at EU-GCC Relations

BY Matthew Robinson



Looking Ahead at EU-GCC Relations

Despite being, largely, bystanders in the unfolding conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the war weighs heavy on the minds of most European decision makers. The European Commission, which began its mandate promising to be an active geopolitical actor, has been forced to watch the unfolding war from the sidelines. This is not to say it does not continue to play an important role, it does, but as of yet, not a geopolitical one. Last week’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—European Union (EU) Joint Council and Ministerial Meeting offered an important, small, window of opportunity to strengthen relations between the two and may be seen as a sliver of strategic hope for the EU.

The 26th session of the EU-GCC Council comes long-overdue—five and a half years since it last met, primarily due to the intra-GCC crisis and in part because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Headed, on the EU side by Josep Borrell (High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) and the GCC delegation led by Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud (Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—Chairman of the Ministerial Council of the GCC) the meeting drew an A-Class of attendees from among EU officials and GCC Foreign Ministers in addition to Dr Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf Secretary-General of the GCC. With global fluctuations as they are, this meeting could not have come at a better time and both parties agreed on enhancing relations on a wide range of areas, including: political dialogue, regional security, counterterrorism, trade and investment, energy, climate change, education, health and cybersecurity and to strengthen coordination in multilateral fora.

With Germany halting the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline project, — designed to double the flow of Russian gas directly to Germany — and Russia now threatening to shut pipelines to Ukraine, the EU is belatedly realising that diversifying their energy supplies is not an economic, but a security prerogative. It is hardly surprising that energy cooperation featured as a central topic as Europe looks to the GCC to offset Russia’s predominant energy role in the Union.

Beyond the immediate energy concerns however, Borrell recognised the importance of deepening EU diplomatic ties with the GCC and remarked that ‘[I]t shows the importance of the Gulf, not because at the moment we have some security concern related with energy, because in a permanent basis the EU has to engage more.’[1]

This Ministerial was optimistic in tone—a reset of sorts. Consider that the EU did not shy away from condemning the airborne terrorist attacks Houthi militants launched against the UAE and Saudi Arabia by missiles and drones and they ‘[…] underscored the importance of Saudi Arabia’s initiative for a ceasefire and political solution in Yemen.’[2] This stands in stark contrast to a European Parliament resolution last year that called for the EU to impose targeted sanctions through its Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, such as travel bans and asset freezes ‘on officials and perpetrators of grave violations during the conflict in Yemen,’ including those from the UAE and Saudi Arabia.[3]

And, in the joint communique, the EU was generous in praising GCC countries for their efforts in combating climate change. They congratulated Bahrain on its net-zero emissions target by 2060, the UAE on hosting the COP28 Conference in November 2023, and Qatar on hosting the International Horticultural EXPO 2023, as these are important signals to the international community that reflect the region’s determination to take measures to protect the environment for future generations.

The positive tone of the Joint Ministerial is further buoyed by the timing of the recently announced ‘Partnership with the Gulf’ initiative from the EU, which is seen as a pragmatic reaction from the EU to reflect GCC members’ heightened global prominence and raised political and security profiles in the EU’s neighbouring countries, and aims to reassess with fresh eyes the relations with the Arab Gulf.

One glaring deficiency in the development of EU-GCC relations however, is the lack of substantial progress on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two blocs, despite over twenty years of negotiations. Perhaps both the positive tone of the Joint Ministerial coupled with the EU’s partnership initiative with the Gulf, could act as kindling to ignite the flame of FTA talks once again.

EU-GCC relations can only really be understood in their proper context. While the EU is certainly trying to recover from a clear dent to its reputation — and reaching out to the GCC may form part of their strategy to do so — the GCC has consistently remained open to working alongside their EU partners. This latest act of summitry is simply a formal recognition of their shared interests now and into the future.